It looks like when Koreans go to the polls to elect their next president on Tuesday, May 9, it will be the sixth time in their seven elections as a democracy that the winner did not receive a majority of the vote. Coming two days after the second round of the French elections, it ought to be a time for Koreans and citizens of other democracies around the world to consider the pros and cons of two-round voting systems.
In the wake of the Park impeachment scandal, Koreans are once again debating why their presidents are such bad leaders and what can be done to fix the system. Park is only the third Korean president to have been arrested after leaving office. Another, Roh Moo-hyun, committed suicide in the midst of an investigation. Presidents in the pre-democratic era have been assassinated, deposed by coup, and died in exile. One proposed reform is to allow for Korean presidents, who are restricted to a single five-year term, to run for reelection. “In order to get them motivated to not be as unpopular as they usually end up becoming, a good idea is to give them the opportunity to run for a second term,” John Lee said in an interview with Bombs + Dollars.
Another idea would be to have two-round elections.
Liberal Minjoo Party nominee Moon Jae-in has increased his lead in the polls from 3-10 points in April to 15 points in the final polls. That’s not because his level of support has increased. In fact, his numbers, which were above 40 percent in most polls, dropped to 38 percent and 39 percent in the final two polls. But the support of moderate Ahn Cheol-soo, who had been running second most of the race, fell from the low 30’s to the low 20’s. Conservative support is finally gaining around the mainstream conservative candidate Hong Jun-pyo, of the KLP/former Saenuri, who saw his numbers rise from between 6-9 in early-mid April all the way to the low 20’s in some May polls. Add in the 4 points for third-party conservative Yoo Seong-min, of the Baerun Party, and the moderate and conservative candidates as a whole are competing with or slightly outpolling Moon.
Many in Korea are concerned that Moon’s stance on North Korea isn’t tough enough. He refused to call North Korea “the main enemy” during a debate, claiming he didn’t jeopardize to hurt possible talks; he said he would visit North Korea before he visits the United States; while he was an advisor with the Roh Moo-hyun administration, he reportedly sought out advice from the North on how South Korea should vote on a UN referendum about North Korea’s human rights record, according to a memoir by the then foreign affairs minister. A South Korean baseball fan I attended a game with yesterday said she was deciding between Hong and Ahn, leaning towards Hong, because she feared Moon would reopen the Kaesong Industrial Zone, a joint economic zone in the North that helps provide income to North Korea’s government.
Ahn, who had once been a member of the Minjoo Party, tried to tack to appeal to elements of the right. Once an opponent of THAAD, he has strengthened his current position in favor of THAAD on the grounds that North Korea’s recent provocations demand it. Moon has maintained ambiguity, saying the next government should decide THAAD. Ahn has talked up the need to build a “grand coalition” with anyone who can help, including conservatives. Moon and his base have been more opposed to compromise with “evil.”
Ahn has found himself stuck in a chasm. Neither liberal-leaning nor conservative-leaning voters trust him enough.
Another factor resulting in Moon’s numbers staying the same while Ahn falls: left-wing Justice Party candidate Sim Sang-jung has risen from around 3 percent in early April to close to 10 percent in May, following a number of debates she was judged by a plurality of those polled to have won.
If Moon wins with 40 percent, which is where the final poll showed his support, that would be the second or third lowest total of a winning Korean president since the first democratic election in 1987. There have been three candidates to win with less than 45 percent. In 1987, Roh Tae-woo, the chosen successor of the authoritarian Chun Doo-hwan, won with 36 percent as democrats split their votes between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam.
Park Geun-hye, in 2012, has been the only candidate to actually win a majority, so maybe winning a majority doesn’t really make a president less likely to be a poor leader. But it does mean the winner, at least at the time they step into office, is represents the will of the people.
Turn to America, and the president also shows poor leadership after winning an election with no majority and even less than a plurality. The only thing preventing America from having a 15-man race, like in Korea, or elections where the top three candidates each take in 20-25 percent of the vote, as in the first round of the French elections, is the America’s two-party system. How great that has worked out for the U.S.
Feature image: Polling chart of Korean election created by Momocalbee of Wikipedia.